Harriet Martineau: Theories and Contributions to Sociology

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  • 0:06 First Woman Sociologist
  • 1:07 Writing Career
  • 2:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bethany Johnson
In this lesson, we will look at the contributions to sociology made by Harriet Martineau. She is considered the first woman sociologist and studied many social problems of her time.

First Woman Sociologist

Born in 1802, Harriet Martineau is considered the first woman sociologist. In 1853, she was the first to translate August Comte's work from French to English. It is through this translation that English-speaking scholars could begin to learn the works of Comte, who is known as the father of sociology.

Prior to this translation, Martineau was already clearing a path in her own right with becoming active in observing social practices and their effects on society. Even before the works of Marx, Engels or Weber, Martineau examined social class, religion, suicide, national character, domestic relations and how these elements affected social problems and individuals. Martineau was also very active in women's rights, the fight against slavery, the struggle of the common worker and religious tolerance.

Harriet Martineau became the first to translate the works of August Comte.
Harriet Martineau August Comte

Writing Career

Martineau had a career full of writing for various journals, newspapers and, of course, her own books. Beginning in 1831, she began writing a series of stories, called Illustrations of Political Economy. Using the utilitarian principles of gaining happiness and the teaching of Adam Smith on free trade, she hoped to teach ordinary people how to better understand things such as tariffs, taxes and the state budget. This series gained her national notoriety and funded her opportunity to travel to the United States for two years in 1834-1836.

One of Harriet Martineau's most known works is her book, Society in America, which she wrote after her two-year visit to the United States. In her book, she examined the moral principles and social practices of the United States and found great inconsistencies in the moral beliefs and thinking of the country with what was truly being practiced in reality. For example, the belief that all were created equal, yet women had no true rights or future aspirations beyond marriage and having children. Martineau was impressed with America's idea of democracy but found fault in a free enterprise system that allowed some to pursue gain by trampling the rights of others. She honestly felt that democracy could not be preserved as it was and could only be done so by abolishing private property. In 1838, Martineau wrote a second book about her trip to the United States, called Retrospect of Western Travel.

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